South America

Geographically Venezuela is not a natural country with highlands splitting it in two places and with the prominent Lake Maracaibo in the north west of the country.

Earliest settlers would appear to have been hunter gatherers from a meso-Indian period around 5000 B.C. From about 1000 A.D archaeologists talk of a Neo-Indian period, but modern history starts with the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1498 and the subsequent conquest of the region by the Spanish in the 16th Century.

Spain started their colonisation of the country around 1522 but there were also German colonies. A small number of Europeans set up as landowners, although gold was mined and this led to a slavery trade.

By the 18th Century cocoa plantations were absorbing many slaves from Africa. In 1717 the Viceroy of New Granada was established and in 1777 it became the Captaincy General of Venezuela.

With the onset of the Napoleonic Wars back in Europe seven of the ten provinces of the Captaincy General of Venezuela took their chance and declared independence from Spain on 5th July 1811. It wasn’t to last and only in 1821 did Venezuela manage true independence from Spain. At this point, though, it was part of Simón Bolivar’s Gran Colombia and remained so until 1830 when it separated from what was to become Colombia, Panama and Ecuador.

For the rest of the nineteenth century Venezuela went through a succession of around 41 presidencies with 16 presidents of largely dubious ability.

Of the more lasting regimes there was the presidency of José Gregorio Monagas between 1847 and 1858; Guzmán Blanco between 1870 and 1887 and Joaquín Crespo who ruled twice between 1884 and 1898.

In 1908 Juan Vicente Gómez took over the presidency and continued to rule until 1935. He proved to be a ruthless ruler and during this period he was three times the president and effectively the ruler under two other presidencies. He oversaw the development of the oil industry which sprang up in 1918 providing new wealth to the country and was still president upon his death at the age of 78 in December 1935.

Eleazar López Contreras who had been minister of war took over in 1935 and permitted political parties to emerge for the first time. In 1941 he handed over peacefully to Medina Angarita who continued the progress towards a more democratic country.

In 1945 a coup deposed Medina Angarita and the country was led by a government run by Democratic Action. They held elections in 1947 and won, but a year later they too were removed in a bloodless coup. This three year period in Venezuelan history is known as El Trienio Adeco.

For the next ten years until 1958 the country was run by a military dictatorship when they too were removed in a coup d’état which started with the mass rising of the people onto the streets. The story notably includes the then president, Pérez Jiménez, stuffing his suitcases with money, taking off in a DC3 aircraft and flying to the Dominican Republic where he sought refuge; the plane is now exhibited in the Museo Aeronáutico de Maracay in Venezuela.

Following the flight of President Pérez Jiménez the military asked naval commander Wolfgang Larrazábal to take over as acting president. This he did, organising a number of significant pacts and putting in place the Emergency Plan to support those who were unemployed. The interim president also called elections in the December of 1958. Although Wolfgang Larrazábal stood as a candidate in the presidential election he came second to Rómulo Betancourt of Democratic Action.

Betancourt was mainly known for his ability to survive the full period including an assassination attempt and the start of a communist uprising. Nevertheless his presidency brought in a period of democracy which saw seven handovers of power through to 1998. Two people served twice as president, Carlos Andrés Pérez and Rafael Caldera. Caldera was eventually stripped of his office in 1993 after being found guilty by the Supreme Court of misappropriation of funds. Caldera also had to face a coup organised by a young Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Chávez.

In 1998 the same Hugo Chávez was elected president under the banner of his Fifth Republic Movement with 56.2% of the vote. Chávez moved to create a ‘Fifth Republic’ with a new constitution and a new name for the country, the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.

Following approval of the new constitution, Hugo Chávez stood for and was re-elected in 2000 with 59.76% of the vote and again in 2006 with 62.84%. In 2009 Chavez called a referendum to remove term limits for the president; this was approved with 54.85% voting yes.

In June 2011 Chávez was diagnosed with cancer and sought treatment in Cuba. In July 2012 he announced that he was clear of the cancer and would be standing for president in the October 2012 elections.

The President is elected by popular vote for a six year term and may serve unlimited terms.

The unicameral National Assembly or Asamblea Nacional has 167 members elected by popular vote to serve five year terms. Three seats are reserved for the indigenous peoples of Venezuela.

The Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) 2016 places Venezuela at joint 166th out of 176 countries with a CPI 2016 score of 17 (where 100 is least corrupt).